How’d I do? I did fabulously — I finished the challenge! I read a book for each of the 24 categories on the list. I’m actually really glad I did this because it certainly introduced me to several books outside of comfort zone this year. Who knew I would love a food memoir? Here’s the full rundown of what I read for the challenge and how I felt about each book:
Read a horror book
One sentence synopsis: Five Boy Scouts and their troop leader face a biological terror of disgusting proportions while camping on a remote island off Prince Edward Island.
My thoughts: “The events that take place on this remote island are the result of a biological terror that shows no mercy. I won’t give away the job of discovering this horror for yourself, but, trust me…I don’t get squeamish about much, and this book made me shout “eww” multiple times. There were a few scenes in particular where Cutter found the perfect balance between the physical and psychological horror that made me exceptionally glad to never be in the situations these boys faced. It’s gory, it’s disgusting, and I couldn’t look away. I loved it.” (read my full review)
Read a non-fiction book about science
One sentence synopsis: Mary Roach interviews scientists who work with the military to uncover the science of designing better products to keep our military personnel safe, healthy, and effective in the field.
My thoughts: Like all Mary Roach books, this is a breakdown of a whole subfield of science intended for a popular audience. Each chapter stands on its own in its coverage of topics such as hearing loss, clothing, food, bugs, scents, temperature control, and submarines, to name a few. This is exactly the kind of nonfiction I enjoy listening to as audiobooks — the whole thing reads like one long podcast, or a series of podcasts on a related topic.
Read a collection of essays
Book: How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
One sentence synopsis: Using her trademark sense of humor, Caitlin Moran covers modern aspects of being a woman from a feminist angle while also tossing in memories from her own childhood experiences.
My thoughts: Eh. This was a fun read, certainly entertaining, but not altogether memorable. I read it in the spring and honestly can’t tell you a single thing that happened in the book now — I’ve forgotten it all. Though I would recommend reading the book (as this type of thing is great for light reading), my recommendation comes with the suggestion to borrow it from a friend or the library rather than paying money for it. Get at good listen, a good chuckle, and a fast read and return it to its source.
Read a book out loud to someone else
One sentence synopsis: A bear almost gives up his search for his missing hat until he remembers something important.
My thoughts: I read this out loud to my husband, since it is his favorite book. Hubby did a lot of work with children’s literature and literature performance in college, and he’s super into both the story and the artwork of this book. We have Klassen prints (and even an original that we were gifted for our wedding!) around our house and own every book he’s illustrated (even his gorgeous cover for The Watch That Ends the Night was on my favorite book covers list before I met Austin). I actually had never read any of Klassen’s picture books (bad wifey!) and really enjoyed reading this with Austin around the holidays. The ending was completely unexpected and I laughed — who would have thought? But I can totally picture us reading this with our future children.
Read a middle grade novel
One sentence synopsis: Two girls solve a murder mystery aboard the Orient Express, Agatha Christie-style.
My thoughts: “I quite enjoyed this book because I felt it didn’t look down on middle grades readers. Because of this, I think this is a series that could be enjoyed by the target age group AND a wider audience. I’m not usually a middle grades fan, but I found myself pulled in by this particular story. I think it helped that the book recognized the time in which Daisy and Hazel lived. There were references to the racism Hazel experiences as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and the growing tensions for Jews in Europe, as well as an acknowledgement of the elite opulence found in traveling on the Orient Express at that time.”(read my full review)
Read a biography (not a memoir or autobiography)
One sentence synopsis: A brief and fun look at the life of a supreme court justice who has risen to hipster fame among millennials…and how she got there.
My thoughts: Though this is a brief biography, it was exactly what I needed. I’m not much of a biography reader, so this challenge task was particularly hard for me! But I enjoyed learning about RBGs life and appreciated the nod to the Notorious BIG throughout the book. I thought it married two pop culture memes quite well, and suited the tone of the book. However, this was not a life-changer for me…though it did meet my expectations, it did not exceed them. (briefly reviewed here)
Read a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel
One sentence synopsis: In an idyllic community where people basically job-share life in prison and time in picket-fenced suburban homes with strangers, a woman falls in love with the man who occupies her home while she’s serving her bi-monthly prison sentence.
My thoughts: “The intended audience here must be the hipster millennials and their dreams of escaping the financial crisis and running towards simpler times. While the story is certainly funny and weird and layered, I would not recommend it for an Atwood newbie. Unfortunately (and I rarely say this about books) this is a novel that I would skip if I could go back in time and use my time to read something else. While I recognize that there is some literary merit here, this just wasn’t for me.” (read my full review)
Read a book originally published in the decade you were born (1980s)
One sentence synopsis: An academic book providing an introduction to ethnographic methods in anthropology.
My thoughts: I won’t bore you much here, but I was somewhat disappointed in this book. It is more about the general philosophy behind ethnography and some very specific (and quantitative) methods than what I’m looking for. Though I can certainly use it in citations for my work and I did learning something about the theoretical orientations of this approach, I don’t feel any more equipped to do ethnography after reading this.
Listen to an audiobook that was won an Audie Award
One sentence synopsis: The “furiously happy” movement, started by comedic blogger Jenny Lawson, challenges those experiencing mental illness (and everyone, actually) to choose to be radically happy each day as an f-you to mental illness.
My thoughts: My husband and I listened to this on our holiday travels and were not impressed. I should have known I wouldn’t enjoy it, considering my lack of appreciation for Lawson’s first book (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened). We dreaded listening to this each day, but I had to finish the last element on my challenge list and I’d already purchased the book! We found her humor to be forced and her stories to be poor imitations of a David Sedaris book.
Read a book over 500 pages long
One sentence synopsis: A group of overly-privilege college students studying classics by reading and living the lifestyle end up murdering their friend…and dealing with the emotional aftermath.
My thoughts: I know this is a book that many of my friends adore, but I ended up feeling like the whole thing was a bit oversold. It was a little too long and a little too pretentious for me to call a “favorite read,” but I guess I can say I enjoyed reading it once and having read it. I think a major factor in not loving the book was the lack of any well-developed, non-sex object female characters. Oh, and the way some people love this book like loving it is some sort of hipster badge of honor. I originally gave it four stars, but dropped it down to three after letting the story settle (mainly because it’s not one I ever find myself thinking about or even remembering). (read my full review)
Read a book under 100 pages
One sentence synopsis: When a woman fails to be happy in her life and marriage, she is locked in a room in her country house and begins to see things in the wallpaper as she slips into insanity.
My thoughts: Was it everything I’d hoped it would be? No. Am I glad I read it? Yes. The Yellow Wallpaper is a classic feminist short story (/novella?) that I felt I needed to read for my own personal canon. I do get why this is part of the conversation on women and mental health, and it certainly complements my love of Jane Eyre (you know, with ladies locked in the attic as a general theme). I would love to read this one several times to catch the nuance of the writing and the story across multiple experiences with the text. (briefly reviewed here)
Read a book by or about a person who identifies as transgender
One sentence synopsis: A transgender girl navigates life at a new high school after her transition, and struggles with when/if/how to come out to her peers there.
My thoughts: I had the pleasure of getting to meet Meredith Russo at NCTE 2016, and she was so nice that I knew I wanted to read her novel (and I cannot say this about most of the books handed to me at this conference — many never get read). And I’m so glad I did! This is the first trans story by an actual trans author that I’ve read, and I believe it is the first in YA. Russo did a phenomenal job here and I enjoyed this story immensely. The story is somewhat predictable for contemporary YA, but the addition of Russo’s authentic voice made this stand out among other LGBTQ work I’ve read. I know some people criticize the story for making Amanda so pretty (she passes easily), but the author’s note effectively explains this choice. Not every trans narrative is the same story, even though TV has taught us to expect certain types of tensions from these stories.
Read a book that is set in the Middle East
One sentence synopsis: Two girls fall in love in Iran in 1988 under a regime that punishes homosexuality with death.
My thoughts: Holy depressing book, Batman! This novel is based on a true story, which makes the events even more depressing. Ellis uses this book to shed light on the horrific reality of trying to be in love with someone of the same gender in areas of the world where such love is punishable by law. It’s easy to think a person could either run away, hide their relationship, or suffer through life in a heterosexual marriage, but that isn’t this story. Ellis’s characters are young, a bit naive, and a bit impulsive and she does not shy away from showing the repercussions of that.
Read a book by an author who is from SouthEast Asia
One sentence synopsis: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a biography showcasing the life and work of Chan Hock Chye, a pioneering but largely forgotten comics artist in Singapore.
My thoughts: This was such a delightful graphic novel presenting the history of Singapore alongside the life of a comic book artist named Charlie. The story is told with art styles that change through the decades, and has a little bit of a bite to it in terms of critiquing the sociopolitical landscape of the country. Right up my alley! I learned a lot about Singapore while reading this, and had to giggle a bit at the “surprise” ending of it. I was really glad that this challenge required me to read this, because I absolutely would not have picked it up otherwise!
Read a book of historical fiction that is set before 1900
One sentence synopsis: To parallel 1950s McCarthyism, Miller presents a play about the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials.
My thoughts: I’m so glad I finally read this! It was referenced a lot in Conversion by Katherine Howe, which I enjoyed a few years ago. I thought this was fabulously written and I would love to see it on stage. I actually listened to a full-cast audio production of the play while reading along so that I could really get a feel for it, but I think I still missed out on really seeing this performed full-force. I’m always down for something with multiple layers of social and historical commentary, so I especially enjoyed the play’s ties to the communist red-scare era and the Salem Witch Trials. I didn’t realize that I was so fascinated by this time period until reading this play (I also loved Conversion and the movie The Witch), and it might be my gateway to more books set in the time period.
Read the first book in a series that is by an author of color
One sentence synopsis: Three girls in a competitive New York ballet school compete against each other both on and off the stage.
My thoughts: “The strength of Tiny Pretty Things lies in its characters. Bette, Gigi, and June are all well developed characters with distinctive narrative voices. Each is both victim and bully, and each occupies areas of grey morality. The story is more sympathetic to Gigi throughout, but all are fascinating and nuanced examples of the different ways in which the high stress world of ballet intersects with adolescent drama. This is also one of the few YA novels that really gets racial diversity right. Gigi is African-American and June is Korean-American, and race is discussed candidly in terms of how it affects their treatment in the academy, their families, and the world at large. However, this portrayal avoids stereotypes and feels authentic to the story. I really appreciated this and wish I saw it more often in books for this age group.” (read my full review)
Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years: (video review)
One sentence synopsis: Five kick-butt lady friends at Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types find fantastic and wacky adventures in the mysterious woods around their camp.
My thoughts: This has got to be the cutest graphic novel I’ve ever read. The version I read was actually a collection of the first four comic books in the series, so it really did feel like reading a comic book (something I have little experience with) rather than a graphic novel (something I have more experience with). I loved the feminist and queer-friendly girls in the camp, different adventures they went on in the different stories, and the artwork of Noelle Stevenson, who is always a delight (she also illustrated Nimona). Perhaps my favorite thing was the expressions the girls used throughout the story — rather than saying “oh my god!” or “for the love of god!” they’d replace the key noun with feminist icons: “What in the Joan Jett are you doing?” Overall, this was light, fun, exceptionally positive, and exactly what I was expecting from a comic book collection. I’ve already bought the second bind-up. (watch my video review and reflection)
Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better.
One sentence synopsis: Krakauer investigates the life and death of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a wealthy boy found dead in a bus in the Alaskan wildness after his attempt to experience the rawness of nature.
My thoughts: I enjoyed this book and the movie, and thought it was cool that I completed this challenge task with a non-fiction book. I thought Krakauer presented an interesting story here of a man considered a folk hero, though I ended up feeling quite the opposite about McCandless. Krakauer explored both how McCandless ended up in that bus and why his story resonated with a subset of a generation. I do see that there is a large group of Gen X-ers/Millennials who are inspired by McCandless to seek great adventures in the rawness of “real nature.” But I felt he went beyond the general sort of “to each his own” type of adventurer to reckless, self-absorbed, and possibly mentally ill. Between the book and the movie I liked the movie far better, as I get slightly annoyed by Krakauer’s insertion of himself into stories and his tendency to ramble. The movie also gave me a stronger sense of place and nature than I was able to get from the book alone, which I enjoyed.
Read a nonfiction book about feminism or dealing with feminist issues
One sentence synopsis: This book is an extended essay arguing for both a literal and figural space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by patriarchy.
My thoughts: I sound like a broken record when I keep saying this, but this is a feminist classic that I’m glad to have read. Even though I literally do have a room of my own in which to write (thanks, hubby, for giving me the second bedroom in our tiny bungalow as my own office/library!), so much of this essay still resonates with the modern feminist. Women still fight for maternity leave, paternity leave (so it’s not just women taking time of work and facing discrimination for having families), equal pay, equal opportunities, harassment workplaces, and equal representation in publishing…among millions of other inequities that face female writers and professional. How many stories are not told because women are too busy taking on the majority of the domestic and emotional labor of the home? How many husbands get to have time for hobbies while their wives, who also hold jobs, are busy wrapping the Christmas gifts, calling family members on their birthdays, and scrubbing that dirty corner of the bathtub for the 100th time? We still have a long way to go in our attitudes about the gendered division of labor and our reception to stories from different voices, which go hand-in-hand. (video review)
Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction)
One sentence synopsis: Dawkins explains, topic by topic (prayer, morality, origin of life, etc), why there is no God…and why belief in the existence of God is detrimental to society as a whole.
My thoughts: This was probably my favorite book of the year, and the one I think about the most. While I still don’t call myself an atheist, and I haven’t read much else on the topic (besides Sam Harris’ End of Faith), I do completely agree with this line of thinking. As much as organized religion is an important part of my cultural upbringing, I cannot deny how organized religion has repeatedly discriminated against me and made my life more difficult. I do believe the world is becoming more and more secular, but I also believe this a long process that will not happen in my lifetime. But I am not worried about the future of the country or the world if science begins to take precedence over spiritual faith.
Read a book about politics in your country or another. (fiction/nonfiction)
One sentence synopsis: Three male comedians take a topical approach to educating non-Southerners about why Southerners and rednecks believe, and vote, the way they do…and what can be done to start shifting their viewpoints.
My thoughts: If you are looking for a light and entertaining political read, this is for you. Be prepared for the Trae, Corey, and Drew to miss the mark in a few areas, but also be prepared to laugh. The narrators did an excellent job reading their own book, and I highly recommend checking out the audiobook if you have the chance. It would make a great listen on a road trip or during the morning commute. I do hope there can be more written that speaks to these tensions in the south and challenges them in ways that maybe make room for conversations around these issues…but, let’s be honest — I’m not holding my breath for that at this point in time (but maybe I’m wrong? Maybe some day?). (review)
Read a food memoir
One sentence synopsis: Kitchen Confidential reveals what Bourdain calls “twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine.”
My thoughts: Well wasn’t this a fun little audio book! Again, the Read Harder Challenge helped me read something I would not have otherwise picked up…and actually enjoyed. I’m not a chef, and don’t like foodie stuff at all, but I did grow up with a chef dad (though he was on his second career as an engineer in my lifetime, he did go to culinary school and worked as a chef). While I’m not into food, I am very into reading books about different jobs that people hold. I always wonder about what goes on behind the scenes in certain industries. Since I’ve never been a waitress or worked in the food industry, this was a fun exploration of the wild and crazy life inside the professional kitchen. It made me never want to work in a kitchen, but it certainly provided an entertaining read. I listed to the audio book for this, read by the author himself, and I highly recommend it — my husband was even inspired to listen to it on his commutes after over hearing a few snippets of the book!
Read a play
One sentence synopsis: The eighth Harry Potter book, set at the start of Harry’s second son’s years at Hogwarts (and jumping through time).
My thoughts: I know a lot of people did not care for this, but I actually loved it. I loved reading my favorite characters again and seeing what they are up to, and I loved reading about new characters who have grown up in a post-Voldemort world. It doesn’t take a lot to please me when it comes to Harry Potter, and some of my super-critique-y walls come down. I think a second reading might get more out of me in terms of analyzing how Hermione and Ginny are portrayed here (we’re still not *quite* feminist enough for me), among other things, and I do believe I will read this again in the future. I was pleasantly surprised that so much of the story included traveling back in time to provide readers with multiple “what-if” scenarios for key points in the original story. Why did Cedric Diggory have to die? Now we know the answer.
Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness
One sentence synopsis: The story about a boy’s descent into schizophrenia told through both the lucid timeline of his everyday life and intermittent chapters about his journey on a ship to find the deepest point in the ocean (known as Challenger Deep).
My thoughts: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman is SUCH. A. GOOD. BOOK. Here we have a book that is worthy of the higher level awards and whatnot and I felt that across every page. Like, there is just something magical about literary YA fiction and Challenger Deep had that magic. I don’t reread books often, but this is the kind of book that I can see myself picking up multiple times and still uncovering layers on understanding on each new read. I only gave it 4 stars when I read it, but hindsight tells me I should have given it 5. (watch my full video review)